Business as Mission: where social impact and profit…and much more…converge

Some people find it confusing to read about socially conscious business, social entrepreneurship or values-driven business. Isn’t business just business – driven by profit margins acceptable to shareholders?  What’s all this talk of values, social impact and community development?

For the past decade or so it has become increasingly popular to talk about social purposes, meaning that some entrepreneurs have a motive beyond profitability.  They want to solve social problems and bring a positive return to society.  Big corporations sometimes address this through the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); and business startups sometimes call themselves social entrepreneurs meaning they start businesses which inherently provide for maximum job growth in their area, or they hire the marginalized in the community, or they take gigantic steps to benefit the community by helping solve problems that exist in the community, or all of the above.  Some entrepreneurs are driven by a cause, like a software developer eager to provide a better way for people to connect.

Let’s take the oft-quoted proverb of going beyond giving a fish (aid, charity) to teaching people how to fish (self-support, development).  Social entrepreneurs also investigate and address issues of alienation and marginalization. They ask, “How can provide access to the fishing streams and ponds or to advanced fishing industry equipment controlled by interest groups and power brokers…breaking down barriers that hinder the poor from advancing?” They want to revolutionize the fishing industry.

Some might say, “That sounds good, but it mixes two extremes in ways that seem irreconcilable.”  A business is focused on profit and the Not-For-Profit or NGO is focused on social impact.  How can you do both together?

The idea of the Triple Bottom Line surfaced in 1994 when John Elkington coined the term in reference to equal attention to environmental, social and financial measures (or as some think of it – the 3 Ps – profits, planet and people).  People started to talk about sustainability in terms of protecting the planet, improving the individual and community conditions, while still making a profit.

Business as Mission (BAM) similarly seeks an eclectic integrated approach to our humanity, but acknowledges the spiritual component of our humanness, thus combining the temporal and the eternal; the individual and the corporate; God and humanity; the sacred and the secular.  The case could be made that BAM is the ultimate social enterprise because it creates jobs, improves the community, provides profit to investors and assures that employees, investors, customers, vendors, and the wider community learn of the God of the universe and of Jesus’ provision for the human condition.

So, BAM business owners are truly social entrepreneurs.  They know they must satisfy their investors, and those investors understand the wider social and spiritual purposes.  They believe in the goal of simultaneously seeking profit for themselves as well as spiritual and personal growth for society’s public benefit.

Such BAM businesses are driven by spiritual values and are sometimes called Kingdom businesses meaning that they are part of building the kingdom of God on earth, and pursuing the eternal kingdom of God for all who follow in Jesus’ ways. Hence we see on the IBEC website reference to values-based businesses, because in order to realize real social reconciliation, consciousness and purpose, one needs to base one’s life and business on eternal values – such as  faith, love, integrity, excellence, truth and purpose.  BAM businesses are all of this: socially conscious, values-driven, mission-driven, business for transformation – all of which bring the entrepreneur to incorporate everything that is important to God together in an integrated whole with the human condition.

How does this work?  For example in consulting with a business, it is important to pursue a business plan at some point; and also pursue a ministry plan (or social plan).  Both aspects need to be integrated, intentional and measurable.

Here is how one client planned for spiritual and social value (in part). Dave decided to write a weekly proverb on the main office door of his East Asia office where all 25 employees came to work every day.  He wrote it there with no biblical reference.   For example he might write, “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them about your neck…”  Sound good?  Everyone pretty much thought that sounded like a good thought but they had no idea of the source, until someone would be chosen to ask where it came from.  The low-key answer from Dave: “…oh that is from my Holy Book” – which led to conversations about Dave’s Holy Book and what it said.  After a few weeks they were asking to study more “good sayings” from Dave’s Holy Book.

I visited Dave’s manufacturing plant a few years ago and I asked several employees (through translation) what they liked about working for Dave.  Many things emerged:

  • I like that he pays us on time each Friday (something atypical of that region).
  • I like that he gives us severance if there are few contracts (not all that common).
  • I like that he honors our families and includes them in group activities.
  • I like that he cares about our kids when they are sick or in trouble.
  • I like that he teaches us new skills.
  • I like that he hires handicapped people from the community and gives them value and dignity.
  • I like that he invites us to go camping once a month, and listens to us talk about life around a campfire.

Dave is a social entrepreneur; he is a Business as Mission business owner (BAM); he works toward Business for Transformation (B4t).  He drives toward the Triple Bottom Line – profitability for his company, job creation and community value and spiritual formation.

Larry W. Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures

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